Monday, April 24, 2006

Condom-nation Versus the Army of God

Today the Army of God invaded my campus. Armed with giant photographs of aborted fetuses juxtaposed with those of murdered Jews, blacks, Cambodians, and Rwandans, these culture warriors sought to redefine choice as murder and abortion as genocide. While they also passed out a large pamphlet explaining why they were right, they knew better than to rely on rational argument. Theater is what counts and their posters were good theater.

The Army of God faced off against an ad hoc group of students with slogans written on their bellies who shrilly chanted, “This is what democracy looks like; this is what democracy sounds like.” I assume they meant that their bellies and chants were what democracy looks and sounds like, but the truth is that for this to be a real democracy you need competing theatrics. So the Army of God was the necessary antagonist in this drama.

Politics is theater, and the Army of God had the better theater. When the news cameras come to film the event, the calm and pictorially armed Army of God will make the antics of the students look silly.

I raised this with some of the students who asked me to I join their protest. I refused. It would blur the drama. The Army of God had no students on their side, just some older adults who used their First Amendment Rights to get on campus. The student protest should be just that, a student protest. But I did make a suggestion.

You need to have a better theater when the cameras arrive, I told them. Go get condoms and distribute them to students right after they get the pamphlet from the Army of God. Don’t attack the Army directly. Agree with them that abortion is not our first line of defense against unwanted pregnancy. Abstinence and condom use could make abortion very rare. The Army of God hates condoms, and handing them out while piggy-backing on their message would be a brilliant move, and work better for the news crews who would have to talk to you about safe sex rather than slogans on bellies.

I offered to pay for a couple of cases of condoms, but the students thought the infirmary would make them available for free. I left before the delegation sent to get the condoms returned. I hope they can pull this off. The key to changing minds in this country is theater, and that would be great theater.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Ralph of God

A woman interviewed at the White House Easter Egg Roll was asked about the large numbers of gay and lesbian parents in attendance. She said, “It made we want to vomit. It made God want to vomit.”

While I felt bad for her digestive distress, the idea of God vomiting was far more disturbing. To find out more about this I contacted E. C. Homo an expiring in the Ralph of God.

“Dr. Homo, does God vomit?”

“Vomit is mentioned ten times in the Holy Scripture, but not in relation to God. There are passages that deal with God hating the stench of sacrifice, burnt offerings and the like, but even this does not cause Him to vomit.”

“If God did vomit, what would that be like?”

“It would be very bad.”

“Worse than Noah’s flood?”

“Oh, yes, much worse. Vomit contains chunks of food and that would rain down upon the earth like a giant meteor shower. Pieces that made it through the earth’s atmosphere would most likely kick up enough dust to blot out the sun and kill off most plants and trees. Human life could not long survive a Divine Ralphing.

“What if God was drinking and simply vomited up liquid? How bad could that be?”

“Think global tsunami. If God vomits, regardless of what God vomits, the result of that vomit hitting the earth would be end of life as we know it.”

“Do we have any defense against God’s vomit?”

“The best defense is, as they say, a good offense. So we should be clear as to what makes God vomit and then do our best not to do that in the first place.”

“Do homosexuals make God vomit?”

“There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that they do. God detests homosexuality, but that is not the same as saying homosexuals make God vomit.”

“Do you think the woman at the Easter Egg Roll who said that gay and lesbian parents make God vomit knows something about God you don’t?”

“Of course that is possible. The study of the Divine Digestive System is a specialty and there are intricacies of which I may be ignorant. Vomitheology has become something of a specialty among certain people of faith for whom God’s vomit is central to their own sense of self-righteousness. So I don’t want to judge this woman’s credentials without knowing more.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your time.”

“My pleasure.”

So, that is that. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves from the Ralph of God. It is just a matter of time. At least we know whom to blame.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Second-Hand Prose

Language betrays us. It is the menu to the meal that is reality. But its betrayal is contingent on our insistence that it be other than it is. When we insist that the map be the territory, that the word be the thing, then we are fooled and foolish.

But language betrays us another way as well. It conditions our thinking and leads us to see things that aren’t there.

For example, “It is raining.” We say this often enough, but what does it mean? What is the “it” that is raining? There is no “it,” there is only raining. Or when we say, “It is nice out.” Again, what is this “it?”

The “it” is what Alan Watts calls a linguistic ghost. Its function is to maintain the illusion that there is something constant in the universe, something other than what is happening. “It” is raining, “it” is snowing, “it” is breezy. The it is what matters, and it is permanent, constant. But there is no “it,” there is nothing constant. There are no nouns in nature, only gerunds; only raining, snowing, clearing, shining, etc.

Or take the phrase, “You’ve got to straighten yourself out.” What a horrible idea! Go out into nature and see if you can find anything that is really straight. You can’t. There isn’t anything straight at all. Everything is crooked. To straighten yourself out is to be completely unnatural.

And then there is “Pull yourself together.” Even if you could be asunder, who is the “you” that could pull you together? The implication is that you are other than the you that is asunder, but if that is so, then why bother with the sundered you at all?

Religion falls for this trap all the time. We are urged to empty ourselves, to surrender ourselves, to humble ourselves, etc. Yet who is the self that is to do these things? Can the self empty itself? The logic is lacking. The self can pretend to be empty, but a truly empty self would be selfless and, even if the self could suicide itself, once gone, it would be incapable of knowing it was selfless.

Our reality is so tied up with words that they easily manipulate us. Blasphemies of any sort are simply crimes against words. You are convicted of saying some words that other words say should not be said. And you can die for this. How odd!

Is there a way out of this trap? I think so. Practice silence. Learn to be at home in wordlessness. Then when you speak or when you listen you will see the game for what it is: the endless echo of second-hand chatter.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The War Against Pesach

Once again the Christian bias of this country and its theocratic administration has shown its ugly anti-Semitic face. I am referring to this Sunday’s Easter Egg Roll at the White House. Some sixteen thousand Easter celebrants will converge on the White House lawn to roll colored eggs in honor of the resurrection of Jesus. While I do not begrudge these Christian holy rollers their day on the lawn, I find it repugnant that there is nothing similar for Jewish Americans whose Passover holy day falls at the same time.

When I contacted the White House and inquired about this I was told that Jewish Americans were welcome to roll eggs along with everyone else. This was a thoughtless and repugnant response. I explained to the administration official that we Jews don’t roll eggs. While the word “roll” is found twelve times in the Hebrew Bible, the word “egg” is not mentioned even once. She not so humbly explained to me that while the Bible may be egg free, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Abaye (280-339 CE) was famous for his ability to juggle eight eggs (some sources, she admitted, say only four eggs). While I admitted that she was right about Abaye, I reminded her that he did this at Sukkot not Passover, so it her point was irrelevant.

Getting nowhere on the phone, I sent an email to the White House outlining four events that could be held simultaneously with the White House Easter Roll. All they had to do was pick one, and I would be satisfied. Here is what I suggested they consider:

1. THE WHITE HOUSE AFIKOMEN HUNT. The President would hide a piece of matzoh somewhere in the White House and invite thousands of Jewish kids to tear through the place to find it.

2. THE WHITE HOUSE MATZOH BALL ROLL. While clearly derivative, thousands of Jewish families could come to the White House and roll matzoh balls alongside their Christian egg-rolling neighbors. The challenge here would be get matzoh balls that are hard and solid rather than soft and flakey. I suggest the President ask Jewish women to submit sample balls in advance of the event to find those that would serve this purpose.

3. THE WHITE HOUSE MATZOH FLY. Rather than copy the Christian event, Jews could be invited to the White House to toss whole matzoh squares like Frisbees from one end of the lawn to the other. If there is no room on the lawn for this event, or if the President fears that the sharp cornered matzoh squares might take someone’s eye out, the event could be retitled the GREAT AMERICAN MATZOH SKIM and held at the reflecting pool on the Mall where matzoh would be skimmed like flat rocks on the water’s surface.

These are just three ideas that would give Jewish Americans equal standing with their Christian neighbors. Unfortunately, the President has chosen to ignore my suggestions and make it clear that this is a Christian Egg-rolling Nation. I, for one, am very disappointed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Leap of Hubris

In one of my classes the other day a student took issue with the Calvinist notion that salvation was predestined: You are born for heaven or hell, and there is nothing much you can do about it.

“That isn’t biblical,’ my student complained. I replied that John Calvin was quite learned in the Bible, and in his mind predestination was not only biblical it was “gospel.” My student tossed out a few choice biblical quotes to defeat Calvin, and found himself assailed by others who tossed out their scriptural quotes in support of Calvin.

“If you believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, how can there be so many different and opposing understandings?” I asked. “And, while we are at it, how are we decide which of the many books that claim to be the word of God is in fact the word of God?”

We knocked this around for a bit and came to the conclusion that it is ultimately a matter of faith.

“So faith is simply your opinion projected onto God?” I asked. Stunned silence. I waited until someone became uncomfortable enough with the silence to break it. “No, it isn’t my opinion, it is my faith.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “For example, there are millions upon millions of bright, thoughtful people who believe God spoke to Mohammed and dictated the Koran. There are even more equally bright and thoughtful people who believe God impregnated a Jewish woman and died on a Roman cross. I believe all of these people are wrong. On what grounds do I assert this? On the grounds that my faith denies it. But how do I know my faith is true rather than simply old and adamant? I don’t.”

“That’s why we call it faith,” someone said.

“Meaning what? That faith is simply synonymous with groundless assertion? Look at this carefully. You take something on faith because you do not know for certain it is true. Yet you choose to label one idea as true and another as false simply on the basis of your own predilection or conditioning. In the end faith is simply a mirror reflecting back your own bias. Because you deny faith is a mirror you imagine the face it reflects belongs to someone else, maybe God. But the truth is you are only seeing yourself, your ego. Faith is simply an affirmation of your own ignorance.”

“This can’t be,” someone half-whispered.

“Don’t take my word for it,” I said. “Find out for yourselves. And when you find a truth that doesn’t require you to choose it as true among competing truths, please let me know.” So far no one has.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Don't Pray For Me

Living as I do in the heart of the Bible Belt, I am often told that people are praying for me. I used to find that comforting. Now I realize they are preying on me.

A new study published today in the American Heart Journal shows that prayer is not only ineffective as an agent of healing, it actually causes harm to patients if they know they are being prayed for: “Hi, Ken, how are you feeling? Not so good, huh. You know my church has been praying for you. Every day we pray… Ken? Hello? Ken? Oh my God, they killed Kenny!”

In trying to figure out why prayer doesn’t work, I came up with four possibilities:

1. God has nothing to do with healing.
2. Kenny lacked the faith to merit God’s healing.
3. God wants Kenny dead, which is why Kenny got ill in the first place.
4. There is no God.

There is no way to know which if any of these is true, so simply choose the one that makes you feel better.

Of course, ineffective prayer is one thing, but why, if prayer can’t heal, does it harm? I came up with three possible reasons for this.

1. Relying on prayer weakens your determination to fight for life.
2. God is annoyed by prayerful challenges to his will, and punishes the person prayed for.
3. The people praying really, although unconsciously, want the other person dead.

Here, too, there is no way to know which if any of these is true, so go with your gut.

Given this new study, should we stop praying? Probably, but I doubt we will. Prayer gives us the illusion of doing something helpful without obligating us to do anything substantive at all. But, now that we know prayer doesn’t work, we are robbed of the illusion and forced either to feel guilty or to do something else like visit the sick, or take care of their dog, or cook them a meal, etc.

So the next time you get the urge to pray for me, don't. Or, if you can't help yourself, just don't tell me about it. And if you plan to pray for someone else don’t tell them either. Better yet, pray for yourself, and ask God to give you the opportunity to be of real service to someone who is ill, and to free you from the notion that prayer is a substitute for action.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Fewer Pewers

For seventy-five years Gallup pollsters have asked Americans about church attendance, “Did you yourself happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?” And for seventy-five years 40% of those polled have said yes. The number has been steady for three quarters of a century. In today’s numbers, it means that on any given weekend, 118 million Americans are attending formal worship services. Pretty impressive. Or it would be if half of these people weren’t lying.

According to this month’s issue of Christianity Today magazine, a far more rigorous study of church attendance finds that about half of those who said they were in church weren’t. They lied.

I have no problem with people choosing not to go to church or synagogue. I don’t go, but I wouldn’t lie about it. When asked if I regularly attend synagogue I unabashedly say, “God, no!” There is nothing happening in synagogue worship that moves me. While I enjoy the communal aspect, there are better venues for schmoozing than shul. And if it is God I am looking for, I do much better walking along the river near my home than spending three hours in a closed room reading words that, more often than not, piss me off.

I am not alone in finding formal worship less than compelling. Even if 40% of Americans are in church every week, 60% of Americans opt not to be.

But what if they are lying also? After all, is it reasonable to think that only fake church-goers lie? And if half of both groups are lying, weekly church attendance would actually rise to 50%!

But why lie about going or not going to church in the first place? I did a bit of research on this, and while there are lots of opinions no one really knows. I certainly don’t. What I do know, however, is that lying about it is a waste of time. If you enjoy church, go. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t go. Read the Psalms: joy is the criteria God uses to measure the quality of worship. I think the better poll would be, Did you do something joyful in the last seven days? But I fear people would lie about this even more.